Pépin’s Perfect Choucroute
When I worked nights at the Plaza Athénée in Paris in the 1950s, my friends and I would often go to the central market of the city, Les Halles—sometimes called the "big belly" of Paris—around 2 a.m. Our destination was a well-known brasserie called L’Alsace à Paris, which served four or five different versions of choucroute garnie—the Alsatian specialty of braised sauerkraut garnished with all kinds of pork, goose and sausages. The fanciest choucroute arrived with a split of Champagne embedded in the center of the dish. When the cork was popped, the heat of the sauerkraut would make the wine erupt from the bottle, like a volcano. It was a very showy presentation but a waste of Champagne, in my opinion.
I still love choucroute and often prepare it at home for winter dinner parties. While cooks in Alsace might make their own sauerkraut by soaking shredded cabbage in a brine for about six weeks, I use the kind sold in plastic bags at the supermarket. I follow the traditional recipe, however, and cook the sauerkraut in stock and wine with a variety of seasonings, including juniper berries. As for garnishes, I use kielbasa (the thick, heavy Polish sausage), skinless frankfurters and boiled ham that I cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Many Alsace cooks include bacon slabs and smoked pork hocks, but I don’t like my choucroute too smoky, so I don’t use either of these.
I also like to add what is called in French petit salé. Here I use pork back ribs; when they cook, they become beautifully pink, like ham. I cure the ribs in salt for 24 hours, then cook them in the sauerkraut. These back ribs (or baby backs, if you prefer) can be cured with kosher salt and a little brown sugar; but if you want your ribs to have the bright pink color of professionally cured meat, use Tender Quick home meat cure, a Morton Salt product that is available on the Internet (mortonsalt.com). It is more than 90 percent salt, with 1 percent sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite.